In January, 1962, in the very first issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, Ayn Rand wrote, “Objectivists are not ‘conservatives.’ We are radicals for capitalism.” More specifically, Rand advocated free-market capitalism, as opposed to crony capitalism under which the politically connected are showered with unearned rewards and granted unjustifiable privileges. She was a radical advocate, she insisted, not primarily because her views placed her on the fringe of public opinion, although they did, but more importantly because her advocacy was fundamental, grounded in basic philosophical premises about the nature of man and of existence.
The question that follows for Objectivists, libertarians, and others who favor economic liberty is: How can we best move the world in a more fundamentally free-market direction? One of the solutions typically put forward is for radical advocates of capitalism to grab hold of the reins of political power. But if power corrupts, as the saying goes, it might prove difficult to remain radical in power. Indeed, this seems to have been borne out by the example of Canada’s current prime minister, Stephen Harper.
Most Americans are probably unaware that Canada’s leader, Stephen Harper, was once quite radical in his defense of free-market capitalism. Certainly, his tenure as Prime Minister has done little to advance the cause of economic liberty in the country. A casual observer would have a hard time telling his track record apart from that of any garden- variety conservative.
But once upon a time, Stephen Harper gave free market enthusiasts reason to hope. Born in Toronto, Ontario in 1959, Harper moved to Alberta after high school and worked for a while in the western province’s oil industry. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Calgary, and later a master’s degree in economics from the same institution.
In the late 1980s, he became an influential member of the Reform Party of Canada, led by Preston Manning. He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons as a member of that party in 1993. Broadly speaking, the Reform Party advocated decentralized federalism, with the federal government removing itself from historically provincial jurisdictions; an elected Senate (Canadian Senators were and still are appointed by the Head of State); the privatization of various government services, including greater scope for the private sector in health care; free trade; and tax cuts for individuals and businesses. It is arguably thanks to pressure from the Reform Party that Canada’s Liberal government of the day got its fiscal house in order, not only balancing the books but in fact returning to surplus for several years.
Critics, however, preferred to focus on the party’s socially conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage, though both Harper and Manning fought against the more extreme elements in the party on such issues. In fact, Harper left the Reform Party in 1997 because he thought it was becoming too socially conservative and not paying enough attention to economic issues. He joined the National Citizens Coalition, an advocacy group whose slogan is “more freedom through less government.” As leader of the NCC, he lobbied for tax cuts and fought against the Canadian Wheat Board and restrictions on third-party advertising during election campaigns.
Five years after leaving, Harper returned to government as leader of the Canadian Alliance, which had succeeded the Reform Party. After uniting the right, Harper contested the 2004 federal election as the leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada. Though he promised to cut both corporate taxes and corporate subsidies, accusations of an extremist “hidden agenda” preoccupied many, and he only succeeded in cutting the Liberal Party down to a minority (roughly speaking, Canada’s version of divided government).
As if Harper’s radical bona fides required any more proof, he used to be a big fan of the libertarian web magazine for which I write, Le Québécois Libre, according to its publisher Martin Masse, who knew Harper personally in his NCC days. He defined himself as a classical liberal rather than a libertarian, but was comfortable, Masse has written, with the notion of restricting the state to a few core functions such as security, justice, defense, and foreign affairs.
But by 2006, when the minority Liberal government of Paul Martin had run its course and Harper was leading the Conservatives in a second federal election, he was promising to maintain spending levels and preserve the social safety net like any other big- government conservative. Whether because of this jettisoning of his free-market principles or because of his and his party’s more polished political performance, Harper won the 2006 election, though he too was kept to a minority.
The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done some good. It has succeeded in shaving a couple of points off the country’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) and has lowered corporate taxes as well. It also achieved a significant amount of deregulation of the telecom sector thanks largely to the redoubtable efforts of then-Industry Minister Maxime Bernier.
But the bad easily outweighs the good. In their first two years in office, the Harper Conservatives increased expenditures by 7.4% per year, outspending both previous Liberal governments. After winning reelection in late 2008 (another minority), the Conservatives jumped on the Keynesian stimulus-and-bailout bandwagon that was sweeping the world, despite the fact that Canada was already weathering the financial crisis far better than most other industrialized nations. They have been running substantial deficits ever since.
Some people, though, argue that since Harper finally secured a majority in the 2011 election, he now has the luxury of showing his true colors and reverting back to his radical roots. Similarly, his critics warn that his “hidden agenda” will now be revealed at last. One can only hope.
There are some positive signs, if one looks hard enough. The Conservatives campaigned on the promise of eliminating the federal deficit by 2014–2015, somewhat sooner than other parties were promising, while simultaneously staying the course with more planned corporate tax cuts. In the months since the election, they have introduced a bill to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board’s marketing monopoly, freeing wheat farmers to sell to whomever they choose.
No word on freeing up the country’s dairy, egg, and poultry farmers, however, though they also operate in sectors that are controlled by supply management boards. There’s still plenty of spending on the agenda, too, including a campaign promise to keep increasing health care expenditures at their current 6% annual growth rate.
The law and order file is also a mixed bag. It’s one thing to end the controversial and expensive long-gun registry and impose harsher mandatory sentencing for violent criminals. But mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders should appall any lover of freedom, as should warrantless Internet surveillance and wiretapping.
Will the Conservatives, now that they have their long-sought majority, actually end up shrinking the size of government by cutting both taxes and spending and also reducing the overall regulatory burden? Time will tell soon enough. But there is little question that a full-blown libertarian or classical liberal revolution is off the table.
Even if Prime Minister Harper still believed what he used to believe, he did not campaign on a radical free-market platform, and most voters would not stand for it if he suddenly tried to slash the size and scope of government. A leader would have to convince voters to elect him or her while openly espousing such a plan in order to have any hope of implementing it.
And before anyone could possibly win high political office on a national scale while espousing such a plan, there is likely much more work to be done disseminating and explicating the idea of liberty. This applies just as much in “the land of the free” as it does in “the true north strong and free.” Too many people now look to government to solve all problems, believing that politicians can both mean well and do good, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
After a century of creeping welfare-statism, too many people have also forsaken such virtues as prudence, self-discipline, and independence, virtues that underpin the working of a free society. Even many of those who advocate freedom today do so in terms that implicitly accept the way welfare-statists frame the issues, arguing merely that freedom would better serve the greatest good of the greatest number. While entirely plausible, this line of argument misses the deeper point, which is that individual human beings have the fundamental right to live their own lives for their own sake. Perhaps if Harper had emphasized this point with the voting public, he might have had more success without drifting so far from his radical roots.
But this is not a reason to despair. We need to remember that in the grand scheme of things, these are early days. In the great sweep of human history, the notion that radical freedom for all is both right and good—that human beings should be free and that they will tend to flourish if left free, barring only the initiation of force—is a relatively novel idea. We need to spread this idea, explaining and illustrating it in creative ways so that people will increasingly want to be free and will demand to be free. The more that we succeed in doing this, the more that radical freedom will become not just an ideal but a reality.